It was at least a year ago, while checking out a hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown that I learned about a French restaurant described as “the place with no pants.”
I was sitting at one of those large, plexiglass-topped round tables with a group of a strangers. Was it just coincidence that we all happened to be white? Probably not, give the hostile grunting and pointing of the hostess. Beneath the din of fluorescent lighting, I smiled at my tablemates.
An older couple next to me explained how since they retired from the suburbs to Manhattan, they come here all the time. “Obviously not for the service,” the husband stated flatly, “but they have the best food. That’s why we wanted to live in the city when we our kids were grown. We missed the food.” On my left, a pair of new parents who had just done the reverse were there to scarf down as much freedom as possible before the parking meter and the babysitter expired.
In between slurps of soup dumpling, I asked the group, “So where else do you like to eat in the city?” Suggestions and stories were passed around and across the table. The new parents rattled off a verbal nostalgia tour of all the places they frequented before junior showed up and ruined their gastronomic lives. Then the wife of the retired couple said, “I wish I could remember the name, but you have to try this French restaurant on the Upper East. They start you off with a giant sausage tree.”
“A sausage tree?” I repeated, wide-eyed and blinking incredulously.
“Yes, a sausage tree,” she confirmed. “And a giant basket of vegetables, and bread, butter, paté, and that’s just the appetizer course! If only I could remember the name…” she continued, hitting the table with the palm of her hand as though it would release the jammed memory. “Achh, all I remember is that it’s the place of no pants. In French. However, you say that.”
And that is how I discovered Sans Culottes.
I made a plan to go there for lunch with my friend Berfu right after Christmas for our annual “ladies who lunch” day of food and museum-going. Trapped on a crosstown bus in gridlocked holiday traffic, I sent her a message letting her know I would be late. She replied with a text that said, “It’s ok. I’m sitting here with a sausage tree!”
Finally, I entered the front door and stepped into another world. Dark wallpaper decorated with painted scenes of 18th-century France adorned the walls. A dark staircase curled its way upstairs to the bathroom and a few additional tables. I think Edith Piaf was playing on the speakers, though imagination may just be embellishing my impression of this quirky, decrepit, amazing Parisian fantasy.
The whole “without pants” thing is a nod to the French Revolution and the sans culottes who were the common folk of Paris and didn’t wear those bougie breeches and so they serve simple, French country fare.
By the time I arrived, the appetizer course was already on the table. Three different kinds of sausages hung from a metal tower, and a harvest of raw vegetables overflowed from an Easter Bunny-sized basket, alongside a large ramekin of homemade paté, a basket of bread, and butter in foil packets. We sat down, chatting, cutting, and marveling at all this food.
I tried my best to pace myself as I knew I wanted to try the trout meunière while Berfu looked forward to boeuf bourguignon. But the paté was impossible to resist, and I quietly asked our waitress if we could forego the main course altogether. Dressed in casual clothes and holding a cordless phone which rang so loudly it halted all conversation in the dining room, she replied in a neat French accent, “No.”
We powered through our classic, vintage meal, engorged and still amazed by the sausage tree, which inspired endless pondering. “They don’t throw out the leftovers, do they? Why give us so much sausage? If this sausage tree is for just two of us, how much do they give a table of ten?”
While Sans Culottes isn’t exactly a hole-in-the-wall as we’ve described them on Good. Food. Stories., it is so wildly eccentric that it’s really more of an experience than a destination. You don’t so much step back in time as you step out of time into a perfect French fantasy.
Unlike the many classic Upper East Side French bistros frequented by wealthy (and often elderly) residents, Sans Culottes thumbs its nose at the notion of fine dining and just puts out the paté and sausage tree to enjoy until busting the seams.
If you were to judge Sans Culottes by its neighborhood, peeling wallpaper, or exceptionally loudly ringing phone, you likely would pass it by. But now you know.